In this week’s blog, I want to discuss an issue that I’m very passionate about: censorship, with a focus on books.
Coming up September 30 to October 6 is Banned Books Week, sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA). Each year around this time, this event shines the spotlight on books that have been banned from schools and libraries. Banned Books Week asks us to embrace freedom of speech, a cornerstone of our constitution. During this week, we’re reminded of the fundamental right of authors to write what they want and for readers to make their own choices of what to read.
As a writer and a reader, I value those rights, and hold them very dear.
The majority of banned book cases revolve around what children should or should not read. I believe this decision needs to be made by the parents, not the government. However, often parents are the ones who initiate a book challenge. Parents have the right to disallow their child from reading a certain book, but I don’t believe they have the right to keep a book out of the hands of other children or an entire community.
Have you ever looked at a banned book list? You might be surprised at the books that have been removed from shelves over the years. I know I was the first time I saw the list.
Here are just a few, each having many challenges over the years:
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, published in 1951, was challenged as recently as 2009 in Missoula, MT and, in 2001, removed from a school district in Summerville, SC because it "is a filthy, filthy book."
Beloved by Toni Morrison, a Pulitzer Prize winner published in 1999, was removed in 2007 from an AP English class in Louisville, KY because some parents complained that the novel included references to bestiality, racism, and sex.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, published in 1954, was burned along with other Tolkien novels in Alamagordo, NM in 2001 because they were considered “satanic.”
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, another Pulitzer Prize winner published in 1960, was removed in 2009 from classrooms in Brampton Ontario, Canada because of the novel’s use of the word “nigger."
And the banning continues with recently written books. The most frequently challenged books in 2011 include The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, the Gossip Girl series by Cecily Von Ziegesar and, again, To Kill a Mockingbird.
The challenges to Harper Lee’s novel represent, to me, the other side of the coin of censorship—the issue of “political correctness.” Most of the challenges to To Kill a Mockingbird were for issues of racism and offensive language. Recently, the n-word was struck from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and re-released.
Is this the right way to approach the issue? I don’t think so. I believe this is censorship at its worse—altering an author’s already published work without his or her permission. Who makes this decision? Who has the right? Where is the line drawn, and who draws it?
Yes, we might find the language offensive, but these books should be read—and taught—within the context of the story and the time they were written. They can be used to teach the harm certain language can cause.
I read an interesting article on this subject on the website Teaching Tolerance. The author, Debra Solomon Baker, said one reason the Finn book was changed was so teachers could include it in their curriculum without fear of it being challenged. But, to me, this is a backwards approach. We need to deal with this head on, and stop banning and altering books altogether.
Baker asked her students what they thought about deleting the n-word from books.
She said the response was “Absolutely not” from “the majority of my eighth-grade students of all races. Leave Mark Twain alone. And John Steinbeck. And Harper Lee. We are mature. We have heard worse. We trust our teachers to put the word in context, to teach about the word.”
She speaks of an African-American girl who did believe in removing the word. Being white, I can’t begin to imagine the hurt and anger that word could cause in any African-American. But can we use the books to teach tolerance? To teach how those words do hurt?
I hope so. I hope we don’t continue to resort to censorship--for any reason.
I read banned books. Do you?